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Biggest, loudest, firstest

The New Guinness Book of Records 1995, Edited by Peter Matthews, Guinness, Pounds 14.99. 0 85112 736 3. Eureka! The Book of Inventing, By Bob Symes and Robin Bootle, Headline, Pounds 17.99. 0 7472 1147 7. ITN Book of Firsts, By Melvin Harris, Michael O'Mara Books Pounds 14.99, 1 85479 199 0.

Victoria Neumark attempts to set a new record for reviewing reference books

How do you get in the Guinness Book of Records? Consider some of the entries in the Human Achievements, Miscellaneous Endeavours section. Dean Gould of Felixstowe in Suffolk, for instance set a record in beer mat flipping, tossing 11 beer mats through 180 degrees and catching them on January 13 1993. Later that same year, Om Prakash Singh of Allahabad, India threaded a strand of cotton 20,675 times through the eye of a number 13 needle. Alfred A E Wolfram of New Brighton, Minnesota, USA kissed 8,001 people in eight hours at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival on September 15 1990.

Picture the scene. It was a boring evening in the pub. Post Christmas, no one has much money. Dean starts flipping the old mats. After a few, the insensate dullness of his activity starts seeping in on his audience. Perhaps they turn away in disgust, perhaps they are tempted to buy him that pint to shut him up. He keeps flipping. A few more yet and some bright spark pipes up, "Go on, mate, bet you could get in the Guinness Book of Records for that!" And so, a star is born.

Or, over in Allahabad, I imagine one of the millions of unemployed university graduates in the sub-continent, confined indoors by a fierce monsoon (it was in late July) deciding with the encouragement of his large and admiring family to go for the big one. It was in Dacca, admittedly a few hundred miles away, that pre-colonial spinners could make thread so fine that muslin could pass through the eye of a needle. Then the cotton barons of Lancashire got their hands cut off and the craft died out. But here is Om Prakash Singh (a Sikh by his name but no matter) restoring the ancient glory of the Indian name.

Meantime, over in the good old US of A, where more means MORE and Bigger means BEST, a man's a man and the kissin' don't have to stop. Wolfram was clearly a man who had no fear of Aids (memo to editor: where is Wolfram now?) nor of halitosis, cold sores or garlic. And when did he have a drink? Few lesser mortals could sustain contact with the mouths of 8,001 strangers (unless, of course, Wolfram is also going for the record number of friends) without alcohol. Still, not too far away, in St Louis, Missouri, the Anheuser-Busch company has its headquarters, masterminding the production of 2.25 billion gallons in 1993.

America is the natural home of the Guinness Book of Records. Every small town there is "world capital" of something, whether it be pecans, peanuts or pies. Ashrita Furman, for instance, of Jamaica, NY, holds eight world records at present, all achieved through his especial brand of meditation and concentration. Brick carrying, hop-scotch, joggling (juggling and running at the same time), milk bottle balancing, pogo-stick jumping, somersaults and basketball dribbling are currently his, but he has also been known to yodel for hours on end, skip long distances and is about to try for the unicycling backwards record. Stilt-walking, tightrope-walking, spitting watermelon seeds, you name it, they're doin' it in the USA.

Likewise the heaviest and tallest folks are from the same country. When it comes to other human achievements, whether it be number of children (Russia), largest cemetery (Germany), longest wall (yes, still China) or highest volcano (between Chile and Argentina), things get a bit more evenly distributed. Apart from a laugh at Christmas and a boon for Trivial Pursuits fans, is there anything else to the Guinness Book of Records? Not really, though you might want to ponder one of the relatively few records down to an Englishman: Dick Sheppard of Gloucester wrecked a record 2003 cars from 1968-1993.

It's just this kind of defeatist talk which the authors of Eureka! The Book of Inventing eschew. Britain has invented, they claim, more than half of the great technological devices which have so changed our life from the static existence of the ancients. To make the point neatly, they compare the Greek list of the Seven Wonders of the World with some of the key technical advances which shape our society, from the clock to the beam engine to the computer. And it hasn't all been invented yet. Loads of inspiring case histories, a how-to section with bibliography and addresses, a bit of humour and some funny photographs make this an endearing companion for idle festive moments.

ITN's Book of Firsts is altogether a more serious contender. Melvin Harris has done an impressive job in synthesising the histories of everyday things from water closets to vacuum cleaners, from prams to condoms (or should that be the other way round?). However, lacking a common theme other than the desire to give information, the book reads like an excerpted encyclopedia. As such, it could be useful for homework projects but is not so much naked fun as the Guinness Book, which I could hardly wrest away from the younger members of my family.

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